Hundreds Gather to Remember Legendary Israeli Actor 'Poli'

Cameri theater ceremony honors Yisrael Poliakov, best known for role in 'Hagashash Hahiver' comedic trio.

Hundreds gathered Wednesday in Tel Aviv to pay their last respects to Yisrael "Poli" Poliakov, whose coffin was placed on stage at the Cameri Theater in the city.

Poliakov died Tuesday at the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva, surrounded by family. He was 66 years old.

At the memorial service, Poliakov's fellow members of his comedy group "Hagashash Hahiver" - Gavri Banai and Shaike Levy- sang a song in his honor.

President Shimon Peres also eulogized the legendary actor, and said that "Hagashash provided the State of Israel what Shalom Aleichem granted the Jewish people- wisdom, positive compassion, and a playful 'beating.'"

"Hagashash constituted a sort of harmonic and continuous cultural peak for many generations... generation after generation watched him and was entranced by his charm. He didn't tire the people for a moment, who asked for more and more, was thirsty for more of 'a taste of the past.' Poli transformed a sad people into one that could not be saddened, and the entire threesome granted us the feeling that they were ours and we were theirs. Poli and his fellow colleagues' contribution are inexistent in our world, and there is no suitable way to glorify it because it is priceless," Peres said.

Science, Culture and Sport Minister Raleb Majadele also spoke at the memorial ceremony and said, "We are parting today from a beloved person. With his two hands, and together with his good friends, Yisrael Poliakov laid the bedrock for the entire Israeli culture."

Poliakov is survived by his wife Shosh, three children and two grandchildren. He will be interred today at the Kibbutz Einat cemetery.

Poliakov was diagnosed with liver cancer a few months ago, but his family and friends did not realize he was so close to death. A short time before he was hospitalized two weeks ago, he was still rehersing with fellow Gashash member Gavri Banai for a play at the Be'er Sheva Theater, "You are Only Young Twice."

Even though he had to be hospitalized during rehearsals, the cast waited for him.

"There was no way I wanted to give him up, so I put off the play twice," Natan Datner, Be'er Sheva Theater director, said. "Poli was hungry for the stage. He was an amazing comic with a rare sense of timing."

Poliakov was one of the fathers of Israeli stage comedy and an actor with a magnetic stage presence. He never studied acting, and had planned to be a farmer. His acting ability was spotted when he was a student at the Kfar Hayarok agricultural school, and he served in the Nahal entertainment troupe in the Israel Defense Forces. It was during that time that he met Banai and the third member of Hagashash, Shaike Levy.

Hagashash Hahiver was founded in 1964. Its unique brand of humor quickly became a byword in Israeli culture. In 2000, Poliakov, Banai and Levy won the Israel Prize for their life's work.

Poliakov has gone down in comedy history for some of the characters he played, including Aharon the warden from Prison 6, Nesherke the clumsy sportsman, and Meyuhas the bank clerk.

After Hagashash Hahiver disbanded, Poliakov started a new career in theater, television and cinema. He was highly praised for his roles in the Cameri's "Mother Courage," and "The Family Israeli," "The Rubber Merchants" and "The Return of Boris Shpilman" at the Haifa Theater.

Poliakov stole the show in the role of the jailer Frosch in Johann Strauss' operetta "Die Fledermaus" in the Israeli Opera, "and that was a very difficult show to steal," Haaretz theater critic Michael Handelzalts wrote in December 2001. Yedioth Ahronoth music critic Hanoch Ron joined the chorus of praise for Poliakov, writing "Poliakov saved the operetta. The words sang better for him than for those who sung them."

Poliakov was born in 1941 in Jerusalem to Shlomo and Miriam Poliakov, and grew up in Tel Aviv. His father, who was a soccer coach for Hapoel Tel Aviv, died of a heart attack at a young age; his mother still lives in Tel Aviv. He was married for many years to singer Riki Gal. He met Shosh, his second wife, in the late 1970s, when she was an El Al flight attendant.

"There are no people like that, and anyone who knew him knew that," his daughter Yael Poliakov says. "The family used to make fun of him because he was too good and honest and generous. We told him that anyone could put one over on him. But most of all, he was a great father."

Shaike Levy says, "We were family, even after the group broke up. We got together a lot. Poli was serious, deep, a man of books. On our long trips, the driver would fix up a light in the car so he could read. He was a stickler in his performances. I will miss him very much; he was really like a brother, a partner. The three of us could sit and converse without talking. It was a blood relationship that is forever."

Omri Nitzan, the director of "Mother Courage" and artistic director of the Cameri, said, "He connected at the point between the entertainer and the actor, and made entertaining a very respectable art," adding, "He is the proof that you don't need 'elbows' to succeed, all you need is a great talent."